Bergeners – Tomas Espedal (tr. James Anderson)

They say you should never judge a book by its cover. But this adage is hardly apt for the Kolkata based Seagull Books, whose book covers are as enticing as the content within the pages.

Seagull Books has been doling out compelling literature in translation and it is good to see that it is being recognized for some major prizes as well.

Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners caught my attention because it was longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award this year.

Bergeners
Seagull Books Edition

Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners opens in New York in the fancy Standard Hotel.

New York City. The Standard Hotel. Room 1103. The loveliest room I’d ever seen. So transparent, so open, so white and severe.

The city was in the room. The room was in the city, like a transparent cube with glass walls.

Tomas is there with his partner Janne but we are immediately told that it is not going to end well as Janne reveals her intention to end their relationship. It’s a break-up that unsettles Tomas greatly and in some way forms the core of his subsequent loneliness.

It’s not just Janne who has left him though. We learn later that his daughter from a previous marriage has moved out of their house (as young adults are bound to do) to shift to Oslo.

You don’t become lonely by being alone. It’s when you’ve got used to living with a lover and children and all the surrounding family and friends, it’s when you suddenly lose all this, all these things you’ve become fond of and reliant on, that you become lonely.

Bergeners is not a straightforward book by all accounts, quite indefinable infact. It has personal, autobiographical shades to it, and yet it is not your standard autobiography fare. The narration is an amalgam of diary entries, poetry, short stories, ruminations on art and reflections on the people of Bergen.   In a way the thin line between fact and fiction is quite blurred as is the narrative voice which shifts between the first person and the third.

There is a restless quality to the book as Tomas travels to places such as Madrid, Italy, Oslo, Nicaragua, Berlin and so on. And yet, paradoxically, he has reached a phase where he does not wish to travel any more…

You’ve done all your travelling, seen what you wanted to see, and what you haven’t seen, you can’t be bothered with.

There are some absorbing pieces on the process of writing as well. In one titled ‘The Writer Who Doesn’t Write’, Tomas travels to an upland village in Italy to meet the writer Harold Costello. The house Costello is living in is perfect, and yet he is staring at a dilemma…

I made a bit of money, travelled around Europe and stumbled on this house which I bought. I thought that this would be the perfect place too, the perfect house, the perfect place to write. I moved here to write. Everything in the house and in the garden and all around me was arranged with just one object, to write. But in all the years I’ve lived here, I’ve never managed to write anything worthwhile.

In a personal narrative of this sort, it’s not surprising to see the presence of other Norwegian authors, and here it includes the likes of Karl Ove Knausgaard and Dag Solstad. As an aside, I have not read Knausgaard but I have read Dag Solstad’s Novel 11, Book 18 and it’s brilliant.

Espedal’s conversation particularly with Dag Solstad is laced with humour.

For some reason, I let it be known that I was reading Thomas Mann’s diaries in German. Yes, Thomas Mann wrote his diary every evening before he went to bed, said Dag Solstad. Every evening without fail that diary had to be written, every evening, every single evening before he went to bed. Why didn’t he just go to bed, roared Dag Solstad suddenly.

I am partial to art and like books that talk about art and there is some of that here as well. Once again, it is Dag Solstad who gives Espedal perspective on how the latter should be seeing Goya’s Black Paintings.

Well, if you want to view Goya’s Black Paintings in the Prado, you’ve got to walk straight through the first rooms without turning your head. You mustn’t stop or look at a single painting. Just go through as fast as you can with blinkers on, all the way to the innermost room of the museum. That’s where Goya’s Black Paintings are on display. After you’ve seen them, you must leave the museum immediately, in just the same manner as you came in, Dag Solstad said.

As I write this piece I realize that my review is possibly quite fragmentary as I can’t quite put a finger on how best to describe this wonderful novel, but perhaps that’s fitting given the nature and tone of the book itself. Essentially, to me this novel was an immersive experience and I will be exploring more Espedal.

Translation credits from the Norwegian go to James Anderson.